Sometimes life feels like a never-ending to-do list. We rush to our busy jobs every morning only to rush back to our homes, which—if you’ve got kids like I do—often look like disaster zones. We’re balancing our health and our work and our friendships and our errands . . . It feels like a treadmill we can’t turn off.
You know what I’m talking about, right? Unfortunately, feeling overwhelmed has become our new normal. Chalk it up to our overbooked schedules, competing commitments and a Pinterest-perfect standard of life.
But nobody wants to live each day feeling like they’re treading water in the deep end of a wave pool. The black hole of things you need to do quickly zaps the energy, productivity and joy out of your life. So, when the feeling of overwhelm sets in, let’s talk about a few things you can do to take back control.
Why Do I Feel So Overwhelmed?
You’re probably feeling overwhelmed for one of three reasons: You’re doing too many things, you’re doing the wrong things, or you’re just in a busy season.
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Doing too many things quickly leads to overwhelm because we cram way too much into our schedules. We don’t give ourselves any breathing room or time to rest. Doing the wrong things, however, is more subtle. You might not be super busy, but the commitments you do have drain you—like being stuck in a toxic job. You feel anxious and stressed because you don’t enjoy your life. The overwhelm could also be the natural result of being in a busy season—like planning a wedding, taking more responsibility at work, or having a baby.
No matter the root cause, the problem is the same: We feel overwhelmed when we don’t have the mental, emotional or physical capacity to accomplish everything we’re trying to do.
How to Deal With Feeling Overwhelmed
When the panic of overwhelm starts to bubble up, we each have a choice for how we respond. Here are 12 ways to respond that will help you move forward instead of staying stuck.
1. Recognize the season you’re in.
During busy transitional seasons of our lives, like planning a wedding, buying a house, starting a business, or having a baby, it’s understandable to feel temporarily overwhelmed. Or even the regular, run-of-the-mill rhythms can pile up without you noticing it. When this happens, you need to remember: You’re not crazy. You’re human.
Separate yourself from your season. Just because you’re in a mess doesn’t mean you are a mess. Let me explain what I mean with an example. When I’m busy and I don’t have time to clean my car, it can stress me out. Before I know it, there’s a gross banana under the front seat and veggie straws in the cupholders. If I give myself a report card based on the status of my car, some weeks I’m an A and some weeks I’m an F. So, I choose not to get my value from the condition of my car.
Instead of piling on the guilt, learn how to make the most of this season. It won’t last forever!
2. Focus on what you’re doing right.
It’s easy to start your day thinking of everything you didn’t do the day before, but that only leads to discouragement. So, do the opposite. Think about what you did accomplish yesterday and feel proud about it. You and I can’t do it all, but we can do a lot. When you spend time remembering what you’ve already done, you’ll be in a completely different headspace for the upcoming tasks.
3. Write it down.
If you’re overwhelmed by everything you have to get done, get your thoughts out of your head and onto paper. Everything feels more intimidating when you don’t know exactly what you’re facing.
David Allen, a productivity expert, says, “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” When you put your ideas somewhere else, it reduces the haunting, elusive feeling that something is escaping you—and stressing you out.
4. Keep two separate to-do lists.
As you write things down, keep two separate lists. The first list should be things you want to get done soon—as in today or this week. The second list is for things you can do if and when there’s time left over. By the nature of having two different lists, you give yourself permission to not do some things.
5. Control what you can control.
Spend some time thinking about the specific things that are stressing you out. In any given situation, there are things you can control and things you can’t. Identifying what you can control and actively letting go of what you can’t is one of the best ways to deal with anxiety.
For example, let’s say you’re swamped in your small business or side gig right now. What can you control in that scenario? Maybe you can decide to say no to a few clients or you can hire some seasonal help.
6. Put systems in place.
We all operate by systems, so it pays to make sure they’re good ones. Author and pastor Craig Groeschel puts it this way: “You have systems by intent or by default.”
Sometimes a good system is simpler than you’d think. For example, my family and I were having trouble staying on the same page about our plans. Then I bought a $20 magnetic calendar and put it on the fridge. All of our plans go on that calendar.
I didn’t know how well this was working until the other morning when my son Carter came downstairs dressed in his favorite pajamas. My husband, Matt, asked him, “What are you doing, buddy? It’s time for school!” and Carter said, “Look at the calendar, Dad. It’s pajama day!”
He was right. And we had no idea that our kids were paying attention to the calendar—but that just goes to show the power of a system. Try out a few approaches that can help solve the problems you’re facing and see what works for you and your family.
7. Rework your schedule.
If you’re consistently feeling overwhelmed, you need to make some major changes to how you manage your time. It’s time to revisit your priorities and make sure you create a schedule that reflects what’s most important to you. Figure out what you enjoy doing, what’s most important to you, and the commitments you can cut that leave you feeling drained and stressed out.
8. Learn to say no.
For most people, saying no and standing their ground is incredibly hard. We all want to be liked, and we want to help. But the good news is there’s a way for you to be kind and loving and still be honest and firm at the same time. You can learn how to say no.
If you don’t have boundaries, I can guarantee that life (and people!) will try to push you around. You’ll agree to commitments that you end up resenting and regretting later. You’ll take on yet another big project at work. You’ll volunteer to coach your son’s 4-year-old soccer team even though you’re five months pregnant because, well, they didn’t have anyone else. You’ll become a person you don’t like in a life you don’t like.
9. Do something you enjoy.
Feeling overwhelmed will quickly extinguish your spark for life. Sometimes you just need to get back to you. Take a break and do something that brings you joy. Read your Bible or a good book to put some positive thoughts in your mind. Grab dinner with a good friend you haven’t seen in a while. Plan a scavenger hunt for your kids.
The bottom line is that you probably need to take a break from problem-solving mode. I know this seems silly, but when you choose to have fun, it brings lightness to your life when you need it the most. It takes your focus off the overwhelming things going on and instead puts it on the beautiful things right in front of you—like your toddler’s little laugh or a cup of coffee with someone you love.
10. Make sleep a priority.
Make rest a priority. It’s very difficult to see things clearly when you’re exhausted. Your to-do list will look even more intimidating because you don’t have the energy to tackle it. But isn’t it amazing how everything seems more manageable after a good night of sleep? You wake up with a fresh perspective of your life and fresh enthusiasm to do what’s in front of you.
If you know me at all or you’ve watched my show, you won’t be shocked by this. Y’all—grab a weight and do some curls. Go on a run. Do some jumping jacks. Do something to move your body. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone on a run when I’m feeling overwhelmed. I pound it out on the pavement, and when I come home, I just feel better. I feel less stressed, more in control, and more powerful.
You may not be a person of faith, but I can tell you from my own experience that prayer will bring peace and calm in a way that nothing else will. God isn’t a distant being in heaven pointing a finger at you, angry and distant. He’s personal. He knows your needs, and He cares about them. He already knows what’s making you feel overwhelmed. He loves it when you come to Him with your prayers and fear and desires.
Take Back Your Time
It sucks to feel like a hamster running on a wheel—doing your best to keep up. One of the core problems with feeling overwhelmed is that we’ve got so many tasks and so little time. I want to do everything I can to help you get control of your time so you can spend it on what matters most to you. That's why I wrote my book, Take Back Your Time. It will help you prioritize and say no to what doesn't matter, walk you through each of the things you do want to accomplish, and schedule everything perfectly into place.